‘Brain cooling’ expert at Cork conference

The man responsible for the development of “brain cooling”, the first technique to reduce brain injury in newborns deprived of oxygen at birth, is among a range of international speakers who will address a conference on newborn brain monitoring that gets under way in Cork today.

Professor Alistair Gunn, a paediatrician-scientist in the Department of Physiology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, led the research team responsible for the development of brain hypothermia, the only medical intervention proven to reduce brain damage, and improve an infant’s chance of survival. This treatment has become a standard of care around the world.

Conference host and co-chair, Professor Geraldine Boylan, said the technique is used to “cool” approximately 20 babies a year at Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH), and that it has improved outcomes for some.

Prof Boylan, who is director of INFANT, Ireland’s first perinatal research centre based at CUMH, said Prof Gunn had discovered the technique worked well in animals and further research showed it translated to humans. It was introduced at CUMH in 2008.

“Prior to 2008, we didn’t have anything [to halt injury to babies who suffer a lack of oxygen at birth]. It’s been a huge addition to neo-natal care. And it’s inspiring for researchers to see what began with animals now at the cotside,” Prof Boylan said.

In fact, three Cork hospitals — the Erinville, St Finbarr’s and the Bon Secours — were involved in an early trial to test the technique and parents allowed their babies participate.

“And now it’s standard practice for babies who’ve had a difficult delivery and a lack of oxygen at birth. Some may need a little resuscitation and are fine afterwards, but others have a serious interruption to blood supply to the brain.

“When this happens, the brain shuts down and through a cascade effect, causes a secondary injury. We know we can reduce the severity of that injury if can arrest the cascade which we can do through cooling. It slows down all the brain’s processes and gives it time to recover,” Prof Boylan said.

She said while it didn’t work for all babies, the conference would provide a platform for world experts to come together to see “what else we can do to protect the brain”.

The conference on Newborn Brain Monitoring and Neuroprotection, which takes place at the Fota Island Hotel over the next three days is a major coup for Cork and for the INFANT Research Centre, which had to bid to host it. It’s only the third time in nine years that it has taken place outside the US and it’s a first for Ireland.

Prof Boylan said they will also be discussing a breakthrough algorithm INFANT designed with engineers to detect seizures in newborns. “The computer programme based on this algorithm can automatically detect seizures in newborns. The quicker they are detected, the quicker we can treat the infant and improve outcomes.”

INFANT is currently heading up an international trial on use of this algorithm which could ultimately lead to a major breakthrough in detection of seizures in newborns. Centres in Sweden, Holland, and London are also taking part, as well as Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital. INFANT needs to recruit 200 babies of whom 60 have been recruited to date.


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